Professor of radiology at Cairo University Sahar Saleem is rewriting history with her research on the mummified pharaohs of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom.
Saleem presented a few of her findings in the McClung Museum auditorium on Monday night at the 11th annual Harry C. Rutledge Memorial Lecture in Archaeology last night. The event was titled “Scanning the Pharaohs: CT Imaging of the New Kingdom Royal Mummies,” and Saleem began by explaining the purposes of the tradition of mummification.
“The Egyptians believed that the soul was immortal,” Saleem said after quoting a few lines from the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text. “The soul was represented in art as a bird with a human head. It would leave the body at death … But the preservation and reunification of the body was necessary for a fulfilled afterlife.”
The best-preserved mummies are those of the New Kingdom, encompassing the 18th through the 20th dynasties in what was the most prosperous period of ancient Egyptian history. Tutankhamun, Seti I, Ramses II and Tiye are among some of the more well-known pharaohs and queens who were buried in the Valley of the Kings, hidden away from looters and thieves for thousands of years. These figures are the subjects of Saleem’s research.
After massive excavations in the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of mummies were unearthed, unwrapped, sold and destroyed as people around the world tried to reveal the Egyptians’ ancient secrets. But when X-ray technology was discovered in 1895, paleoradiology was born, allowing archaeologists to study these mummies without such damaging results. Saleem fell in love with the discipline when she was studying radiology in Canada.
“On the first day of class, they brought in a mummy,” Saleem said. “I felt I had to do (paleoradiology) because of being Egyptian. I also felt that this technology could be very helpful.”
Using CT scanning, Saleem and her colleagues have virtually unwrapped 22 royal New Kingdom mummies since 2005. The results have been enlightening, and these researchers have been able to determine difficult-to-ascertain aspects of mummies, like genders and ages, at death. Their scans also divulge information about Egyptian culture, ancient diseases and causes of death, knowledge which had been purposefully obscured by the mummification process.
“The ancient Egyptians, they meant it to be a secret,” Saleem said. “They wrote everything about their life. They wrote it down when they bought something or sold something. They even wrote comics. But they never mentioned anything about how they made the mummies of Egypt because they wanted it to be their secret.”
Among other secrets uncovered by her research, Saleem also revealed that Howard Carter, the first to discover Tutankhamun’s untouched tomb in 1922, had caused irreparable damage to the pharaoh's remains. Carter decapitated the mummy, disarticulated limbs, removed the hands and destroyed the front of his chest by trying to remove its golden mask– all in search of hidden amulets and jewelry, Saleem said. And Carter's dissection confounded theories about the pharaoh’s death for nearly a century.
A bone fragment lodged in Tutankhamun’s skull led many to believe that he had died after sustaining head trauma. However, Saleem’s research revealed that the bone was most likely a cervical vertebra broken off during Carter’s autopsy and misplaced ever since. It also revealed that Tutankhamun was stricken with malaria and was disabled by a bad foot. It was likely that the young pharaoh had to walk with a cane, a theory further supported by the presence of over 160 canes in his tomb.
“He was a poor teenager king who had a bad foot and had to be aided by sticks to walk around. He had malaria. His body was badly affected by Howard Carter. One should feel bad for Tutankhamun,” Saleem said.
Saleem went on discuss her new understanding of the process of subcutaneous packing. The ancients would insert resins and other materials beneath the skin in order to preserve the looks of the dead so that the soul could more easily find its body to be reunited in the afterlife.
“I always look at this and how beautiful it is,” Saleem said about Seti I after presenting a photograph of the mummy. “You can hardly believe that this is a mummy. I have a crush on Seti. He is a sleeping beauty.”
After Saleem discussed the paleopathological ramifications of her research, the floor was opened to questions.
Audience members asked Saleem’s opinion of the role of imperialism in the discovery, treatment and current locations of the Egyptian mummies. While Saleem enjoyed samples of Egyptian artifacts in museums throughout the world, she also said that she wished the more unique pieces would be returned to their country of origin.
“Actually, I was thinking that having the samples of our heritage in museums all over the world is nice,” Saleem said. “But what breaks the heart is that so many unique pieces are not in Egypt … At the time, Egypt was a colonized civilization. It wasn’t up to the Egyptians to decide … It would be very nice for (foreign museums) to return those unique pieces.”
Other audience members were equally interested in the role of culture in the study of mummies. Chandler Bolton, senior in psychology, was intrigued by the changes in methodology over the last two centuries.
“I was really curious as to how this held up to previous research that had been done, like (that of) Howard Carter who kind of butchered a lot of the bodies,” Bolton said. “I was also curious to see the advantages that CT scanning had in comparison to when they were just dissecting the bodies.”
Maegan Baldauf, junior in animal science, was also impressed by Saleem’s discoveries.
“The only time we really talked about ancient Egypt was in middle school,” Baldauf said. “Learning that they would take out all of the organs except for the heart was pretty interesting. She talked about how it was the house of the soul. I was like, okay, that’s nice. It was also interesting that (CT scanning) gives you all of those visuals and potential outcomes without actually having to touch it and ruin it.”
Although her research focuses on the long-dead, at the same time, Saleem said she “continues to work with people who are very much alive.” At the end of the lecture, Saleem invited the audience to sign her notebook and leave her comments, pictures and email addresses to keep in touch with her.